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(The Gear Loop) - The Apple Watch Ultra crosses into relatively uncharted territory for the Cupertino company, taking the fight for the most rugged and utilitarian fitness smartwatch to its biggest rivals.

Garmin, situated just three states over from Apple, has long been one of the most recognisable brands in the outdoor abd fitness  smartwatch game and its latest model, the Fenix 7 Series, is arguably the pinnacle of what’s possible with wrist-based tech.

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Reviewing the Apple Watch Ultra without mentioning the "G" word, as well as several other rival models from the likes of Suunto, Polar and Wahoo, is going to be tricky, because these are the watches currently worn by the ultra-athletes and extreme environment explorers Apple is marketing at.

The watch itself is based on the latest Apple Watch Series 8, but comes with a titanium case housing, an action button, a larger, orange-hued Digital Crown and oversized buttons for use with gloved hands.

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The display is brighter, the speakers louder and microphone system enhanced for use in harsh, windy environments. Plus, with all-new dual-frequency GPS and clever way-finding software, Apple certainly isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to outdoor credentials proudly worn by the Ultra. 

But can it perform when called upon in real-world scenarios? We hardly took it to the summit of Everest and back, but we did subject it to the usual outdoor active lifestyle tests to see how it stood up.

Our quick take

Tougher and more robust than the Series 8 upon which it is based, the Apple Watch Ultra proves to be a versatile and impressively resilient outdoors watch for most recreational activities.

That said, there are watches on sale from the likes of Garmin, Suunto and Coros that offer more in terms of proper topographic maps and extreme navigation, more detailed performance metrics and a far greater battery life. All of which are very important factors when venturing properly off-grid. 

Apple Watch Ultra review: rough and rugged, but not quite expedition-ready

Apple Watch Ultra

4.0 stars
For
  • Excellent way finding and back-tracking features
  • Full smartwatch capabilities
  • Fantastically bright and crisp screen
  • Mightily impressive call quality
Against
  • Styling won't be to all tastes
  • Alpine Loop band feels cheap
  • Battery life is still well down on rivals

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In the Loop

Everything you need to know about the Apple Watch Ultra in a nutshell:

  • 49mm titanium case 
  • Weight: 61.3g 
  • Internal storage: 32GB 
  • GPS, GNSS, Galileo, BeiDou GPS capabilities
  • Bluetooth 5.3
  • Sensors: Depth gauge, water temp, blood oxygen sensor, optical heart sensor, altimeter, compass, gyro and accelerometer
  • Tested to MIL-STD 810 standard
  • Certified to WR100  
  • IP6X dust resistance 
  • Up to 36 hours battery life, normal use
  • Up to 60 hours on lower power settings
  • Fast charging: 0-80 per cent in an hour

Design and features

Although based on the Series 8, Apple has introduced a host of additional design features to ensure this rough and ready action watch stands out from the rest of the line-up.

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A 49mm titanium case houses all of the delicate internal components, while the brightness on the always-on retina display has been turned up to 11. Boasting up to 2,000 nits, it really is dazzling to behold. For comparison, most rivals manage just half that.

An oversized Action Button has been added to the left of the bezel, which joins the Digital Crown, itself 30 per cent larger than the one found on the Series 8. The titanium casing has also been extended to shroud this deeply-grooved dial to prevent accidental rotations.

That Action Button can be customised to the user’s tastes either on the watch or via the app, but will automatically bring up favoured workouts, switch on a torch or enter the navigation menus at a simple press. Apple has generally made the buttons larger so users can easily operate them in the wet or when using gloves.

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Although chunkier to appeal to outdoors enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies, the fatter casing isn’t just for show, as it also houses a dual speaker system (40 per cent louder than Series 8) and a three-microphone array for much clearer phone calls when in windy and extreme conditions. There’s a fair amount of software trickery involved here, but we will get onto that later.

Apple is launching the Watch Ultra with three distinct bands: Ocean, Trail and Alpine. The former is a rubbery elastomer offering with a titanium buckle. It comes in an extra-long version for those who like to slip it over a wetsuit cuff.

Alpine and Trail are similar in so much that they are made from softer nylon weaves, although the Trail is much lighter in weight and features a pull tab for rapid adjustments to appeal to runners and the like.

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Our test model came with the Alpine Loop, which features two textile layers that are integrated using a special weaving process that requires no extra stitching. The raised loops act as a housing for the titanium G-hook that adjusts the band. It was also retina-searing orange.

Battery life and charging

An outdoors watch - particularly those sold as being worn by adventurers and whatnot- live and die on the battery life they offer. After all, if you are genuinely at Everest base camp or running in the UTMB, you need a watch that is going to provide accurate location tracking and fitness metrics for multiple days.

A Suunto Peak 9, for example, offers seven days of 24/7 tracking, while Garmin’s Fenix 7 Solar manages a staggering 73 hours of battery life using continuous GPS technology and 22 days in standard smartwatch mode.

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The Apple Watch Ultra manages 36 hours of normal use, 18 hours of all-day LTE usage and up to 60 hours when a Low Power Mode setting is activated. This limits the use of the sensors, such as blood oxygen and heart rate, while turning off the always-on display, although if you activate a workout these things come back online.

In reality, we found we managed around two days of charge when tackling a multitude of lighter activities. Some of these used all of the available sensors and GPS, while others were less taxing.

For example, a week that consisted mainly of gym use and the odd outdoor run saw the best return of battery life, but a solid day of hiking, riding and climbing killed it in rapid time. We only just got through the day during that test but then we were constantly interacting with the watch for photography and video purposes, swapping workout modes, using GPS and backtrack and generally putting a lot of demand on the watch.

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That said, it’s still a big improvement over previous generation Apple Watches, where users were forced to charge every night, or more, but it still feels a long way off accompanying explorers on multi-day hikes and grand adventures without packing several portable battery packs.

Apple plans to release a new battery optimisation setting later this year that will see the addition of a new option in Workout Settings that will provide fewer heart rate and GPS readings. When enabled, Apple says this creates additional power savings during hiking, running, and walking workout, although we are yet to get hands on.

In better news, charging is relatively quick, with a 0-80 per cent charge taking around an hour and a full charge completed in around an hour and a half. Our only gripe? Apple, like so many tech companies now, only supplies its flash magnetic charging mechanism with a USB-C cable end. 

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If, like us, you want to charge on a bedside table, that means buying a converter or having a modern enough house with USB-C outlets on your sockets. 

Although, if you are out adventuring or wild camping, just make sure your portable battery back or power station boasts said USB-C outlet, otherwise you are properly stuck. 

Performance in the wild

The Apple Watch Ultra can do a lot of things. In fact, there are likely successful space missions that have required less computing power. But in the interest of fairness, we should mention a few things we quickly noticed it couldn’t do.

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Currently, there is no way to quickly pair external power meters or sensors that are connected by Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or Ant+, unless it’s a heart rate monitoring chest strap that the Apple Watch Ultra recognises. 

This means those thinking of using it as a bike computer will have to make do with fairly basic performance metrics in this area.

Apple likes to use its own algorithms and built-in sensors to determine things like running power, so it already paints a fairly robust picture, but those wanting more detailed running dynamics will need to look towards Stryd, which has a compatible third party app that allows the pod to sync. 

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This is also the case with relatively standard fitness watch procedure, such as broadcasting heart rate. Rather than beaming out a signal that most clunky treadmills in the gym can pick up, this must be done via GymKit on the watch and even then, the fitness equipment needs to be recognised by the watch. Peloton users shouldn’t have much trouble, but anything less technically advanced is tricky.

But let’s not get too negative, because Apple Watch Ultra can do so much. The addition of a new Wayfinder Watch Face should give some indication of exactly what’s on offer here.

Designed to make the most of the hardware, the watch face (exclusive to his model) features a live compass, as well as the ability to customise eight different complications.

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Neatly, it can also be switched into a quasi-tactical "night mode" by rotating the Digital Crown to its uppermost position. Here, the watch face turns red, making it easier to read at night and avoids blinding anyone you might be sharing a tent with.

Apple has opted to go with a mix of touchscreen and physical buttons to interact with the operating systems and it has its ups and downs. When wet, the screen gets confused and we found that interacting with apps in the rain or when in the water is very difficult.

It’s properly water resistant though (tested up to 100M), and even brings up a bespoke dive face when it detects it has been submerged. This will give depth and water temp readings, but an Oceanic+ app is due later in the year that has been developed alongside dive experts Huish Outdoors.

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This will essentially turn the Apple Watch Ultra into a fully capable dive computer for recreational scuba diving up to 40 metres. We aim to test that as soon as it becomes available.

As for its performance in the water, we found that the touchscreen could get a bit confused when wet, while the Digital Crown became more difficult to use after being in salt water.

This soon corrected itself once we had cleaned the watch up with fresh water, but moving parts, sand and water are always going to pose potential issues. 

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Activity tracking and fitness

The Apple Watch Ultra, like many of its fitness watch rivals, comes pre-loaded with various workouts, most of which automatically prompt the user to start recording when the watch cleverly detects said activity. These range from a simple outdoor walk, to more complex multi-sport triathlon set-ups, where the app will automatically detect the various phases of a classic swim, bike, run event. You can also manually create splits by hitting the new Action Button, add pacing goals and more. Cleverly, the watch will also detect regular running routes and do a bit of a Strava, informing the wearer how they are doing compared to other sessions. 

Alas, the depth at which Apple delves into performance metrics post-workout (and during) currently can’t really match the likes of Wahoo, Garmin or Coros at the moment, which all now rival the sort of tools professional coaches use to train pro athletes.

Head for a bike ride and the Fitness App on your iPhone will show things like elapsed time, distance travelled and calories torched. You’ll also get a little info on average speed and elevation gain, but nothing in terms of VO2 maxes, race-readiness, lactate thresholds or the left/right power split between pedals, for example.

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It’s a similar story with running, swimming and more, with only the surface of an individual’s performance, effort metrics and general preparedness scratched. Those wanting really deep insights will probably want to look elsewhere.

But interestingly, Apple will introduce a track running feature (coming later this year) that will automatically detect when a user is running on a track and save accurate lap data and timings accordingly.

Plus, users can also scour the App Store for numerous third party apps (or sign up to Apple Fitness+ for workouts etc) that do go into a little more data or provide an additional workout experience. However, don’t be surprised if you have to pay to access premium features. 

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But do you really need all this stuff? Apple errs on the side of rewarding users with ring closures and meeting a daily movement targets, rather than pushing them into a six-week running programme with an emphasis on increasing stride length and forefoot strike. 

We've mentioned the addition of a full-on dive computer app coming later in the year, but even from new, it makes a good case for those who like to snorkel or SCUBA already, with the watch automatically entering this mode when submerged. Post paddle around, it will give a number of insights, from water temp to depth reached, as well as a map stating your location and distance travelled.

Navigation and wayfinding

Apple has completely revised its compass app and has thrown in much more orienteering-focussed features. The handiest of these is the ability to quickly and easily mark a point on the compass (label it and use a bespoke icon) to return to later.

This can be something as simple as your parked car, which will often automatically register if you use Apple CarPlay, or something more complex like a basecamp or aid station when out in the wild.

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Using the new compass app is similar to following a radar on a video game - it shows your current direction and then plots the various waypoints added onto the screen. Rotating the Digital Crown zooms this radar in and out.

You can press on these small colourful dots to bring up any information you may have saved previously, or you can then navigate to that point with distance to go flagged on-screen.

A setting, dubbed Backtrack, is also a cleverly conceived feature, as this traces your current route from either where you started or where the workout was first activated and then allows you to follow a simple line all the way back to the start.

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It works exceptionally well and Apple’s new precision dual-frequency GPS is really paying dividends. Not only do you get an exceptionally fast GPS lock when first starting an activity, but the Backtrack is incredibly accurate, too. 

But speak to anyone with mountaineering experience and they will attest to the fact that precision plays a pretty major role in staying safe in the great outdoors.

There’s a reason why Garmin offers its TopoActive Maps on its high-end explorer’s devices and that’s because most want the detail of an OS Map on the devices they choose to use. Being able to read elevation change, especially where sudden drop-offs are involved, can be the difference between a good day out and a bad one.

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Apple doesn’t quite go to the full effort of contour lines and detailed graphical maps in its compass view, and although it’s fairly easy to get to points marked on-screen using the general directions, things get a bit messy in poor visibility or perhaps when the terrain isn’t as clear-cut as distinctly marked tracks or paths.

We also found that accompanying Apple Watch apps from the likes of Komoot, OS Maps and Strava acted as accompaniments to the iPhone app itself, rather than allowing the Apple Watch Ultra to act as unit on its own.

On top of the wayfinding applications, there is built-in SOS functionality that can either make an emergency SOS call and/or raise an 86dB siren with a unique sound signature, which features two distinct patterns that will repeat for up to several hours while you are seeking help. 

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Call quality and smartwatch features

OK we admit it... there’s a theme forming around the idea that the Apple Watch Ultra does most things very well but never quite goes to the lengths real outdoors enthusiasts want and often need in the wild.

However, the same cannot be said for its quality as a smartwatch, where it is still undeniably one of the best around.

We found the call quality, for example, to be better than some phones we have recently used. This is thanks to the three microphone array, optimally placed for the best voice clarity.

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Even when calling off the wrist and walking at normal pace, we were able to hold a conversation with the person at the other end understanding our every word. Machine learning activates when it senses wind to cut it out, always selecting the best microphone for call quality.

Quickly taking a call when on the bike is a breeze and, so long as you don’t mind your call being broadcast to everyone around, it’s a neat way of rapidly dealing with things when really, all you want to be doing is exercising.

It’s almost pointless for us goto go into every conceivable smartwatch feature the Watch Ultra boasts, because the possibilities are almost endless. Making calls, adding things to calendars, controlling elements of a smart home, listening to music and podcasts, checking train departure times and quickly pinging a friend a What Three Words location takes seconds and can all be done on the fly.

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To recap

There’s no denying the Apple Watch Ultra is a phenomenal smartwatch and the new titanium casing, rugged Digital Crown and bespoke activity bands will appeal to those wanting a little more robustness from their Series 8.. It’s also incredibly accurate in its GPS presentation and some of the new wayfinding features will assist those wanting to push their hiking and adventuring to more audacious levels. However, we can’t help thinking that rival watches, even those that come in considerably cheaper, provide more detailed analysis of performance post-activity, while many also offer full-on Topo maps for those that really like to venture off grid. We also feel the looks and styling aren’t really in line with what we, as average outdoors enthusiasts, want to wear on our wrist. Although highly personal, it’s still very much an Apple Watch in its execution and, for us at least, feels like a shouty lifestyle accessory rather than a subtle smartwatch extension of a regular utilitarian watch.

Writing by Leon Poultney.